Drag is having a moment – but its long history is marked by persecution and resilience

U of T scholar Kevin Nixon researches the evolution of the vibrant art form

A drag queen leads the Trojan group as thousands gathered for the massive 2023 Pride parade in Toronto (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Drag isn’t just having a moment right now – it’s having an extravaganza.

There’s drag brunch, drag trivia and drag bingo. There are drag cabaret and drag burlesque shows; drag violinists and drag science lectures; even Drag Camp for those wanting to sharpen their sashay. And of course, drag queen story time.

“Traditionally when we think about drag, we think about performance art that involves gender-bending and gender play in some form,” says Kevin Nixon, a PhD candidate in the University of Toronto’s department of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “There’s an artistic component, of course. But it’s also quite political and has a long history in terms of activism.

“Traditionally, drag queens were framed only as cisgender men, and drag kings only as cisgender women. But the concept has exploded to encompass much more than it used to.”

Some 10 years ago, Nixon began ethnographic research for his doctorate. He conducted interviews with 30 to 40 drag performers all over Ontario and in other parts of Canada and has since informally interviewed many more. He has also performed in drag himself. After taking a leave from the university, he’s now writing his dissertation and has recently taught courses in sexual diversity studies and on gender from an anthropological perspective.

“When I started this work,” Nixon says, “RuPaul’s Drag Race was in its infancy. Since then, drag has become more mainstream. But in many ways it has stayed consistent.”

Drag is about glamour, sass and joie de vivre. But Nixon says drag performers have always been subject to persecution.

“When police raided bars in the 1950s and 60s, drag queens would have to show they were wearing male undergarments under their dresses – if they were wearing undergarments associated with the opposite sex, that was considered illegal.”

Over the years, as drag has become more accepted and inclusive, it has also been the subject of what Nixon calls “boundary debates.” Some feminists, for example, see drag as a mocking appropriation of femininity, “but you also see cisgender women happy to participate in an exaggerated entertaining, colourful form that they might not have access to in their daily lives.”

And while there are now many transgender as well as cisgender drag queens, “some trans scholars are vehemently against that inclusion, because they see drag as representing an identity that’s put on and then taken off,” Nixon notes.

But Nixon’s own research reflects the idea that today, anyone can not only enjoy but also participate in drag. Examining the topic through the lens of race, sexuality and ethnicity, he’s witnessed the true breadth of drag performance, especially in Toronto.

“Toronto has had a very vibrant drag culture, going back to the 1950s and even before that,” he says. “We’ve had some really popular performers who’ve made it big internationally. I also think the multicultural component is fascinating, in that we’ve got many performers producing shows that incorporate elements of different cultural customs and practices.”

In order to add an “auto-ethnographic” element to his research, Nixon also briefly performed himself under the name Roxy Foxx.

“I used to joke with my friends that I had to walk a mile in their heels,” he says. “That was invaluable for me. There was something really interesting about being part of that scene and learning my way through performance: from hairstyles, how to do makeup, how to create costumes and things like that. It’s hard work, absolutely – a skill set I still don’t have to this day! But it’s also how I learned about some of the discrimination that drag performers experience.”

In recent times, that discrimination has been increasing. In particular, the introduction of drag queen story time in libraries has met with opposition from conservatives, who accuse drag queens of “grooming” youngsters.

This view stems in part from a refusal by some people to consider how broad the spectrum of drag really is.

“The idea that drag performances by their very nature are always sexualized is problematic,” Nixon says. “Certainly in bars and nightclubs, you’re going to have these salacious performances. But drag queen story times are just about exaggerated costuming, and the hyperbolic play with gender that children find fascinating. In this context, I’ve heard drag queens compared to clowns. It’s about playing with appearance – it’s visually appealing, but it’s certainly not sexual.”

And yet, in the U.S., the state of Tennessee recently passed legislation banning adult drag performance as well as story time. Ten other states have either introduced or are drafting similar legislation.

“I think of this as a convenient scapegoat to take attention away from other issues, such as gun laws,” Nixon says. “The drag queen becomes the monster. It’s a convenient trigger, particularly when you see things like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is a very public manifestation of gender non-conformity. That makes people very uncomfortable.”

This suppression is especially perplexing in light of the tremendous social justice efforts made by drag performers over the decades – including a strong tradition of charitable fundraising. At the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, American performers regularly put on shows to raise money for sick people who’d been rejected by their families and lacked health insurance. Here in Toronto, drag queens have raised over a million dollars for the Casey House hospice. And they have consistently staged many other fundraisers for various hospitals, community centres and other causes.

“When you think of Pride, the image of a colourful, bright drag queen might pop into your mind,” Nixon says. “They really play a key function within communities of bringing people together and increasing social solidarity. That’s a function that sometimes gets negated – and one that’s very much ignored through this demonization of the drag queen.”

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